This semester, students in READ 6310 Children’s and Adolescent Literature were asked to contribute a post to this blog.
by M.R. Graham
The “Literature” status of children’s literature has long been not merely the subject of debate, but often a point of feud. Many in the industry and surrounding the industry – book critics, authors, agents, and English professors across the country – seem to see children’s literature as something less: less complex, less beautiful, less intelligent. Less important. The argument seems to be that children’s literature must be inferior in some way because adults read it easily, as though quality were to be gauged not by depth or humanity, but by ability to confound. Others argue that children’s literature is “watered down” in its portrayal of the human experience, often glossing over the darker moments of death and loss – not merely an inaccurate criticism, but an unfair one, as though whimsy has no place in the exploration of the human condition. Chaucer wrote comedy, as did Molière. Why choose to live at all, if not for the moments of brightness? Can literature not be a celebration at times? A perpetual dirge is exhausting.
Our error is in viewing literature like a journey, with a beginning and a final destination. The child begins with what is appropriate for her, and though she may love and enjoy it, there is always the understanding that she must someday move on to something “better”, something closer to the end. She may progress through Young Adult, the recently-introduced New Adult, genre fiction, literary fiction, to finally reach… what? What is the final destination, the elusive “true Literature”? Is it that which is universally relevant? Nothing is universally relevant; humankind is too diverse, and any text can only approach universality. Is it that which endures? Children’s literature is a relatively new phenomenon, but many works already seem well on their way to endurance. What about Dr. Seuss, or, older still, the fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, immortalized by Disney?
There are children’s works that are relevant to no one, that will be forgotten in a decade, that are truly simple and shallow and without lasting worth. The same is true of work written with adults in mind. Certainly there are books that are not Literature, at least not as the critics define it, but to pass judgement on every volume in so vast and varied a category is arrogance. Those who proclaim that children’s literature is not Literature place too much value in their own preference.
Literature is not the final destination of a mapped journey, but every step taken in our lifelong textual wanderings.